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The Paradox of Success

July 08, 2021
Recognition and advancement come by taking care of the problems facing our managers. The reward for taking care of this problem is the opportunity to take on a greater problem.

Gaining a reputation for fixing problems may allow you to jump the line for promotions. Failure could result in removing you from this same line. Beware, success resolving problems is rewarded with being given bigger problems to resolve. What is the calculus one should apply when stepping forward?

We should understand our bosses are like ourselves in they have their own pressures and responsibilities. At a minimum, they want to keep their jobs and be recognized for doing them well. Therefore, it would be reasonable to infer what is of greatest importance is to do our job well. There is a hierarchy of focus our managers have of which we should understand:

  1. Don’t create a problem
  2. Do my job
  3. Resolve a problem

In the corporate setting “problem” means doing work that was done wrong initially or requires some unplanned work. The first objective of a corporate employee is “Don’t create a problem.” Don’t do something big enough to become a problem for those higher than you in the organization. Being tied to a problem is the type of recognition that slows advancement.

“Do my job” is being a reliable colleague, team member, and employee. You know, understand, and can deliver what is expected of your role. Initially, our focus of learning to do our job is all consuming and paramount. Progress is developing our competency is sufficient for raises. When we learn our jobs, Doing Your Job is enough to position you for annual cost of living adjustments and modest pay raises. However, it is not typically sufficient to be positioned for promotions.

For those seeking promotions the first two priorities of focus must be met and you must go above and beyond by addressing number 3. The above and beyond needs to be what your manager or company views as a valuable problem to fix. There are two options for fixing a problem: bring in more revenue or reduce some cost. Increasing revenue takes longer to be recognized. Dealing with an urgent problem typically yields a more immediate benefit. Managers will tell you what is keeping them up at night. Another way to identify the problem/opportunity is by listening to what is being emphasized in status meetings. These are the opportunities for recognition and potential advancement, as long as you are not the source of the problem. The best opportunities are those urgent problems in which no one is volunteering because they know its messy.

The Paradox for Success

Volunteering for the urgent problems is beneficial as you will be given opportunity to learn new things faster while showing your manager your willingness to help. The key, however, is that you are adhering to the Priorities of Focus listed above. You can handle these by having your boss decide how your responsibilities are to be handled while you focus on the urgent problem. If you are to do your job while also working on the urgent problem, be clear with your boss what limitation of time you can commit to the problem. The trap is thinking you can do both. Fixing the urgent problem while not doing your job might create a new problem for your boss or for you.

In this age of having to do more with less resources, we are frequently being presented with situations in which we don’t feel we can decline. Managers may not be thinking how their focus on their problems will create issues for you. You must always embrace you are the one responsible for you. It can be challenging to recognize when we are being asked to do too much or when our efforts are creating more issues than they are resolving. Use trusted friends, colleagues, or advisors for feedback when you are finding what you once did is no longer satisfying or rewarding. It could be because of unreasonable expectations or some other factor they can help you to see.